A Voluptuous Rotting Corpse

Mary Grabar

2/25/2007 9:37:49 AM - Mary Grabar

A voluptuous rotting corpse was where much of the media attention was directed the week of Ash Wednesday.

Of course, the footage did not show the corpse, but only images of a young, buxom blonde woman of various weights and levels of sobriety. One chilling image showed her very pregnant, her face painted as a clown, and obviously hallucinating. One of the men who claims to be the father and who now is fighting for custody of the baby born just weeks after he filmed the drug trip, is heard saying as he aims the camera, “Is this a mushroom trip?” The pregnant woman cannot understand the question and the cameraman, Howard Stern, says, “This will be worth a lot of money.”

Can anyone say, “sociopath?”

Is there anything more chilling than this blatant exploitation?

And why are we fascinated?

Money, sex, celebrity, a corpse, a baby.

Reportedly, a movie starring Reese Witherspoon is in the works.

Why do we watch such stuff? Well, we’re glad we’re not Anna Nicole Smith now.

We have the life lesson of a young woman who started on her downward path by first letting herself be exploited by our national pimp, Hugh Hefner, by posing in his magazine. Hefner had the audacity to issue a statement after her death, calling her “a dear friend who meant a great deal to the Playboy family and to me personally.” “Family values” are dirty words to such pimps and pornographers, yet they appropriate the word “family” in this perverse manner.

And then there was Smith’s “marriage” at age 26 to an 89-year-old billionaire and the fight with his children all the way to the Supreme Court regarding inheritance.

Who has won?

It is certainly not this woman attempting to exploit her own sexual appeal.

But you would have thought this was a female version of the Horatio Algier story, from commentators’ remarks about Smith’s “determination,” her chutzpah, so to speak. She made it against the odds—from dropout waitress to billionaire world-wide icon.

An American success story.

It was the American Dream that naturalist writer Theodore Dreiser wrote about at the beginning of the last century. His heroine “Sister Carrie” uses her sex appeal to climb to the top, by working as an actress, stepping over the men in her life to get there. And there Dreiser leaves us at the end, with Carrie on top in what he depicted as a Darwinian capitalist society.

The novel is a grim portrayal of a struggle that lacks tragedy. Such is the universe of the atheistic naturalist who, through the lens of science, sees an animal-eat-animal world. Dreiser’s own diaries reveal a life of joyless promiscuity and drug use—in fact, real depression.

Our age is an age of depression, not tragedy.

Depression emerges from the grimness of money, superficial love, sexual exploitation.

So with our stories, whether in books or over the airwaves, that have no message. There is no right or wrong. There are no wages of sin. Since the beginning of the twentieth century we watch (and read, but less and less) without judgment stories that are presented as a slice of life, without any moral meaning. If we are literary sophisticates, we read literature that demonstrates a writer’s cleverness and share his jaded view and predigested political bromides on sex, race, and class. As for the visual media, we stare and stare, but don’t know why or what to make of it.

As Smith attempted to exploit the system and a dying man so was she exploited in the end. This kind of stuff happens in the books worth reading. Anna Nicole wannabes wait in the wings. For not only in the media, but in the educational system we are trained to value spectacle. Calls for papers on “spectacle” and sex come from the University of Pennsylvania’s list for English professors. Academics in all seriousness discuss Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s sex life at conferences.

The feminists in academia have been promoting the use of the body as empowerment. Scholarly journals have been publishing articles about sex workers for years. In fact, a “Sex Workers Art Show” has been touring since January 25, with the majority of its stops on twenty college campuses, such as the College of William and Mary, the University of Pennsylvania, and Bard College. The shows, funded by student fees and women’s studies departments, feature prostitutes, displays of sex toys, and women stripping to g-strings and pasties.

Yes, nudity and sex work are considered legitimate endeavors of academic study. One of the performers, Stephen Elliott, a former stripper, pens autobiographical fiction about sadomasochism and teaches a creative writing workshop sponsored by the literary journal Tinhouse, when he is not writing his column for the Huffington Post. Sex work is mainstream. It is the stuff of academic papers and literary writing in English departments. Anna Nicole Smith is an American success story both in the culture that worships Donald Trump and Hugh Hefner and in the culture that sends Ph.D.’s to conferences. Smith was an strong, self-made woman who worked the system to her advantage, like any “sex worker,” goes the logic. An American success story. A feminist in the tradition of Madonna.

Or is she?

In the classroom today, the idea of literature conveying a moral message is disparaged. Political criteria—the trinity of race, class, and gender--are applied to even explicitly religious texts of the Middle Ages, such as the morality play, “Everyman.”

In this play, “Everyman” is abandoned by all his friends and his attributes like wealth and talent, as he is about to die. Of course, “man” here indicates mankind, all human beings.

But it is a morality play and its intention is to teach a lesson. That is what stories do. They show us what happens to other people. Aristotle wrote that tragedy draws us in because we empathize with otherwise noble people who have tragic flaws. By watching their downfalls unfold we experience a catharsis.

The tragedy of Anna Nicole Smith’s story, though, lies with the audience that no longer can recognize such a thing as tragedy or the lesson to be learned from her story—that selling one’s body and soul is not “empowerment.”